Quad-City businessman Matt Stern saw Illinois’ medical marijuana program as a lucrative investment opportunity, but not much else.
“I’m not ashamed to say it,” said Stern, who owns Nature’s Treatment of Illinois, one of 39 licensed dispensaries. “I knew very little about medical cannabis when I got into this, but I’m a firm believer in this now. It's helping people.”
The cannabis retail shop opened in February to sluggish sales. But Stern said his business is gaining momentum and only has room to grow under new legislation that expands the state’s medical marijuana pilot program.
Gov. Bruce Rauner is expected to sign off on the extension of the program to July 2020. In addition to giving medical pot another two-and-a-half years, it adds two qualifying medical conditions and takes away responsibilities doctors have in the patient-registration process.
Change of plans
Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's four-year pilot program for medical marijuana was to expire by the end of 2017, but supporters argued more time is needed to prove its potential for success.
Medical cannabis sales started in November 2015, and Stern's business, for example, has been open for just four months. Located next to his Budweiser distribution facility at 973 Tech Drive, Milan, Nature's Treatment became the 25th dispensary licensed by the state.
The Legislature last month approved the addition of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and terminal illnesses with a diagnosis of six months or less to the list of 39 qualifying diseases and conditions.
Other potentially significant changes to the law include:
• Physicians no longer would have to "recommend" cannabis, but only certify their relationship with a patient and confirm a patient's qualifying condition.
• Patient and caregiver authorization cards will be valid for three years, instead of one, and upon renewal, no repeat fingerprinting will be required for criminal background checks, as it is for initial approval.
• Patients younger than 18 can have two designated caregivers (parents/guardians) instead of one.
• The Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, which is composed of patients, doctors and other health professionals, will be reconstituted with a new procedure for accepting petitions to add more conditions to the program.
Rauner, a Republican, previously rejected recommendations from Illinois’ Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to add conditions, including PTSD. He also has opposed extensions to the program.
But Rauner agreed to the compromise deal late last month — just days after the U.S. Senate and House approved bills that permit doctors with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss medical marijuana and recommend it to their patients.
During a visit this month to the Quad-Cities, Rauner declined to comment on his turnaround on the issue. His office did not return several messages left last week by the Quad-City Times.
Signs of success
Joseph Wright, director of the state's pilot program, said dispensaries sold almost $2.3 million worth of marijuana to more than 5,100 patients in May alone. Last month's figures bring the total retail sales to $10.8 million since purchasing began seven months ago.
“We’re starting to see a critical mass form,” said Wright, whose office is in Chicago.
As of June 1, 7,000 patients, including 52 under the age of 18, have been approved by the Illinois Department of Public Health to buy marijuana. The state began accepting applications in late 2014.
According to the agency's most recent progress report, 43 Rock Island County patients had been approved and 32 got the OK in Henry, Mercer and Knox counties combined.
Last week, Stern said his dispensary has 110 registered patients. His is the only one in Illinois State Police District 7, which includes Rock Island, Henry, Mercer and Knox counties.
On Tuesday, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation issued its 39th license to The Dispensary in Fulton, located about 45 miles northeast of the Quad-Cities in Whiteside County.
The state’s consistent increase in sales, "which are not as important to me," Wright stressed, also reflect the health of the industry.
Chicago entrepreneur Ben Kovler co-owns Green Thumb Industries, or GTI, which opened the state's first grow house in Rock Island County. He said industry leaders, including himself and Stern, are responsible for the success of the program.
“Given the recent news, I think this will be a viable business in Illinois,” Kovler said. “There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic, and at the end of this rainbow, there are patients finding dramatic relief from this product in a safe, legal and regulated fashion.”
GTI, which also runs a cultivation center in Oglesby and a dispensary in Mundelein, has harvested “hundreds of pounds” of cannabis since last July. The Rock Island operation, the company's "flagship," employs 30 people. The 45,000-square-foot warehouse is located off Andalusia Road, about seven miles from Stern's storefront.
Q-C hospitals remain hesitant
Wright said the slow but steady growth in patient numbers resembles the progression of medical marijuana programs in other states.
Medically legal in 21 states, the District of Columbia and Guam, recreational pot also has been legalized in four states. Meanwhile, marijuana use remains illegal under federal law.
Doctors’ and patients’ unfamiliarity with Illinois' program also could explain its slow start, Wright said.
Neither UnityPoint Health-Trinity nor Genesis Health System has amended policies on medical pot since January.
In a written statement, UnityPoint said its physicians do not prescribe or provide prescription oversight for medical marijuana recipients unless the physician is board-certified in pain management. According to its response, "When federal and state laws are not congruent, it is considered best practice to utilize the more conservative ruling, which we do."
Genesis' response indicates it does not place any restrictions on its physicians when it comes to "appropriate use of prescriptions," noting the American Academy of Family Physicians does not support the use of marijuana.
Stern thinks the new law could reverse the reluctance he has seen from Quad-City health-care providers.
“I think that probably opens up about quadruple the amount of doctors who are going to be comfortable with this,” he said, adding he has received several inquiries from "serious" physicians in the area. "It's such a quality-of-life issue for some of these patients. I think it'd be pretty hard for doctors to look them in the eye and tell them, ‘No, I'm not going to let you try this.’”